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WHY WHITNEY? THE COLLECTOR'S EDITION | WILD WEST CHRISTOPHER
REYNOLDS

A tragic crash in calendarlands

Photographer Galen Rowell died in the shadows of the mountains he had helped put on walls across America.

October 14, 2003|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS

Bishop, Calif. — The ORPHANS LIE UPSTAIRS IN THE OLD BANK BUILD-

ing on South Main Street -- page upon page of numbered slides, spilling across a light table. In AA1154, a lone climber in a red parka confronts the daunting eastern face of Mt. Whitney, its crevices half-filled with snow. In AA1126, an improbable arch of rough red rock frames a distant view of the high Sierra slopes. In AA0001, snapped in 1973, a far-off climber stands in silhouette atop a rock pinnacle.

The images cover the Sierra Nevada landscape we've seen many times -- call it California's calendarlands -- but these compositions, these colors, make the place startlingly anew.

They are the work of Galen Rowell, the widely published nature photographer and accomplished mountaineer who was among four people killed when their small plane crashed Aug. 11, 2002. Rowell, 61, died alongside his wife, 54-year-old Barbara Cushman Rowell; passenger Carol McAfee; and pilot Tom Reid as his plane approached Bishop's airport.

Together the Rowells had built Mountain Light Inc., a gallery and stock photo agency that supplied his high-altitude visions to the world, and then moved it here to the footstep of the Sierra.

But what happens to the image factory, I wondered, when its leading image maker dies?

Even if you never step off Main Street on your visit to Bishop, you can feel the long, dry Owens Valley sprawling around you and the mountains rising east and west like walls of stone. If you're from somewhere else, it's a natural impulse to somehow bring this mountain-crowded feeling home. And from its oversized prints to its dramatic lighting, the Mountain Light gallery is calculated to stir such thoughts.

But it's hard to be skeptical about the work. Galen Rowell's vistas remind us that each of us is a puny presence in a magnificent and often terrifying natural world. This is a scary way of seeing, yet simpler than our low-altitude, high-population stomping grounds. And for some reason that comforts us. It's not logical, but there it is.

Rowell spent most of his life on mountains, and snapped his most famous image at about 12,000 feet -- a trick of light and perspective, frozen in 1981, that shows Tibet's Potala Palace at the end of a rainbow. But his roots were in California, and his archive of more than 200,000 images may include the richest collection of Sierra images left by any photographer since the death of Ansel Adams in 1984.

Rowell's color-saturated slides never get the respect among fine-art photography types that Adams' pioneering black-and-white prints do. But when millions of people close their eyes to imagine California's high country, they're really looking through viewfinders positioned by those two men. And of those two, Rowell, a climber with dozens of first ascents to his credit, knew his territory in far more intimate physical terms.

After the crash, Mountain Light closed -- for a day. Then surviving family and staffers opened the doors again on Main Street and faced the complex challenge of mourning, keeping the business vital and tending a legacy at the same time

"My brother and I sort of prepared for this since we were little kids, knowing that someday the call would come," said Nicole Rowell Ryan, who did her growing up as her father was scaling some of the world's highest and steepest mountains. She was camping, sharing a tent near Lake Alpine with her husband and two sons, on the morning of the Bishop plane crash.

Now she and her husband are two of the six family members on the board that controls Mountain Light, and because her father and stepmother left brief wills, drafted nearly 20 years ago, there are plenty of decisions to make.

The Rowells, longtime Bay Area residents, moved the gallery from Emeryville to Bishop in 2001 and brought the stock agency in 2002, settling in with Uncle Bill's Barber Shop across the street in one direction and Brock's Fly Fishing Specialists in another.

Then came the crash and its trail of ironies. Death came to the mountaineer on a routine hop from Oakland to Bishop, the crash scene a patch of flat land less than two miles from his home. Although Barbara Cushman Rowell was a passenger on that flight, she had credentials as a pilot and was about to release "Flying South," a book celebrating the "inner journey" of flight. The book, now on sale at Mountain Light, bears a cover photo of her grinning, standing by a prop plane at Bishop Airport.

The Rowells were cremated, and their families still are thinking about where they might scatter the ashes. At the office, Mountain Light has doubled the price to $1,100 for Rowell's 16-by-20-inch limited-edition images. Among the works no longer for sale: about two dozen signed prints of the Tibetan rainbow image, which before the crash were selling for as much as $17,000 each. The most popular image these days, however -- the one that has been sold 643 times in not quite two years -- is neither the Tibetan rainbow nor any other foreign wonder. It's a view of Rowell's adopted home territory in the Owens Valley, a shot he grabbed on a fall morning in 2001.

In the distance, the first sunbeams of the day blaze on the eastern Sierra. In the foreground under soft light, knee-high brush ripples in muted hues. I can't say exactly why, but it looks like just the place to lie down and rest.

To e-mail Christopher Reynolds or read his previous Wild West columns, go to www.latimes.com/chrisreynolds.

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